Putting food on the table for a family was not always an easy task in 1930s Ireland and children were involved in foraging, fishing and hunting at an early age. My father-in-law had first hand experience.
The Art of Making Snares 1934
When I was a boy, eighty years ago, rabbits were as plentiful in the countryside as seagulls at the seaside. They were a valuable source of food for poor people – at a time when work was scarce and badly paid and Social Welfare was non-existent. If you didn’t have work you went hungry, or depended on the charity of neighbours, unless you had a bit of land on which to grow things to eat or to sell.
The famous Mrs. Beeton’s instructions in her cookery book on how to make rabbit stew began with “First catch your rabbit”, and the methods for so doing were varied. To hunt them with dogs, you needed two, first a terrier to flush them out of the thickets, and then a fast dog to take them on the run. The latter would be a whippet, or a lurcher, which was a cross between a greyhound and a collie, or indeed any kind of mongrel that could run faster than a rabbit. If you had money, you could buy a ferret (Ten Shillings) and a run of purse-nets for sixpence each, or a hank of netting twine and make the nets yourself. Gin traps were often used too, but most people felt they were a cruel method.
Last on the list was a snare, made by twisting together several strands of fine brass wire, and making a lasso. This would be set in the path used by a rabbit, and secured with stout string to a peg driven into the ground beside the rabbit run. When the rabbit ran down his path, his head went through the noose and he was held fast until the owner of the snare came at dawn and put him in his bag.
Making the snare was a vital part of the operation and as a boy fond of hunting I longed to know exactly how to make them. I had visions of catching rabbits for the pot or maybe even selling them for sixpence each as some of the locals did.
In my quest for this vital knowledge, I met with Jack, a casual farm worker who had nine children. It was well known that they practically lived on rabbits, and that Jack was the expert on anything to do with hunting, including making snares. He took me with him a few times into the depths of the local woodlands, where he marked some likely rabbit runs suitable for laying snares. On one of these occasions a rabbit jumped out of a grass clump and had run about fifteen yards when Jack, without hesitation threw his stick and knocked him stone dead. On the way back, I asked Jack if he could teach me how to make a snare. I wasn’t prepared for his answer.
“If you’re going to first Mass in Crooke next Sunday, bring a coil of wire and a few eyelets with you, and I’ll show you. The shop that sells the wire has the eyelets as well.”
I agreed, and promised to meet him but wasn’t quite clear on exactly the how and where. Anyway, I got the wire for sixpence and the eyelets for tuppence, I put the lot in my back pocket where my jacket would cover it, and got the bus to Mass at 8 a.m. that Sunday with my family.
There was no sign of Jack in the chapel yard when my family and I arrived and as we entered the chapel I mentally wrote off the whole thing, telling myself that adults didn’t always keep their promises.
The stairs to the gallery, where my family always sat, had a landing, where a stained glass window was set into the wall. It was there that I found Jack, ensconced on the deep window ledge with the sun shining in on his back.
The stained glass window & ledge
He beckoned me to sit beside him. I hung back a bit as the rest of my family went on up to the gallery. Once they were out of sight of us I sat in on the ledge with him and whispered
“What about the snares?” He smiled and said “At the first stand up,” and put his finger to his lips.
I knew what he meant, but I doubt, dear reader, that you will, so perhaps I should explain. The men at that time went to Mass on a Sunday largely because their women folk insisted, or had to be ferried there, or because the priest would find out if they didn’t, or because of what people might think. Anyway, it was a chance to meet other locals and have a chat before, after, and sometimes, during Mass. In general, they were quite removed from the liturgy, and hence the gospel was known as “the first stand up”, followed by “the little sit down”, and when the priest entered the pulpit for the sermon, that was “the big sit down” and could last for half an hour. But I digress!
Now, I handed the wire and the eyelets to Jack and he uncoiled a couple of feet of the wire. Then he took a three-inch nail out of one jacket pocket, and a round stone, the size of a goose egg, out of the other one. Next he took an eyelet and slipped it onto the nail, the point of which he stuck quietly into the window sill. He held the nail upright and as the congregation shuffled to its feet with the usual coughing and general noise, Jack hit the nail with the stone, driving it well into the wood. The sound was just like an iron-shod heel striking one of the metal brackets which secured the pews.
Jack then looped coils of wire around the eyelet on the nail whispering “Four strands for a rabbit, five for a hare, and six for a fox. Remember that.”
The loops of wire were about a foot long and having snapped the wire, a second nail was inserted in the free end, and I was told to twist it. I did so and in minutes, I had a miniature wire rope with an eyelet at one end. Both nails were withdrawn and the small end put through the eyelet to make a perfect noose. At the “big sit down”, the performance was repeated, and by the time the sermon was over, I had two perfect snares, which I hid under my jacket for the bus trip home.
I caught many a fine rabbit with those two snares and many others which I made with my new-found know-how, and I never forgot Jack and his kindness in showing a little boy the tricks of the trade.
Jack disappeared soon afterwards, and I heard that he had “taken the boat”, and gone to England to provide for his family. Oddly enough, I remember best the smell of his pipe, which he smoked whenever he had the price of a plug of tobacco.
The mighty hunter. Circa 1930
Description of a guy who had a prominent chin:
“He has a chin fit to poke a cat from under a bed!”
©Geoff Cronin The Colour of Life 2005
About Geoff Cronin – 1923 – 2017
There were few jobs that Geoff could not turn his hands to, and over the years he mastered an impressive number of professional undertakings. Master baker and confectioner, mobile cinema operator, salesman, band leader, senior executive and master wood turner, storyteller and writer.
Geoff Cronin published his first book in 2005 at age 82. The Colour of Life is a collection of stories of life in Waterford during his childhood and early adulthood in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. This was followed by two further books that related tales of further adventures in Waterford and Dublin.
Thank you for dropping in today and you can read the previous chapters of The Colour of Life in this directory:
Please join me again next weekend for two more chapters from the book. thanks Sally